April 2, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 20: The Horla

by

the horlaTitle: The Horla

Author: Guy de Maupassant

First published: 1887

Page count: 74

First line: May 8. What a wonderful day!

As it happens, I’ve followed one supernatural-themed novella (Eliot’s The Lifted Veil) with another, Maupassant’s The Horla. Before we go any further, however, let’s clear one thing up. Putting together the three variants of Maupassant’s story in a novella-length package, as Melville House have done, does not make it a novella. The Horla is and remains a short story, pure and simple, and while it is interesting to see how the story evolved and improved, there is no ‘art of the novella’ here. Nu-huh. Nothing to see. Move along, please.

Except, hang on. There is, patently, something to see, and that is Maupassant’s – frankly superb – story. What is it? It is uncanny in the best sense, in that it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly it is, let alone what makes it so. Points, to be developed:

It doesn’t read like a story written 130 years ago. It reads like a story from the future.

It doesn’t read like a horror story. It reads like a scientific report.

The weirder it gets, the more plausible it becomes. It turns the story onto you, the reader, in a way that The Lifted Veil, for instance, doesn’t.

Final point: if you haven’t read it, then ideally please don’t read any further. Get on the case and read The Horla, then come back.

Now then, I’d not read The Horla before. I have read what you might call the legal minimum required amount of Maupassant – ‘Boule de Suif’, and ‘Mouche’, and a handful of other stories (though no novels, and not Bel-Ami, so maybe I am below the legal limit). I read them for entertainment, and for confirmation of the generally held opinion that Maupassant, disciple of Flaubert, is a Master of the Short Story. Which I suppose he is, but then you set him alongside his contemporary, Chekhov, and that mastery begins to look a little suspect, a little dated.

A detour: one of the things I find hardest to get my head around, when thinking about the short story as a form, is reading context. Novels were once serialised, but we still naturally ‘seralise’ them in our current reading practice, picking up Madame Bovary at bedtime, or on the commute, and reading a chapter at a time. The bourgeois identity of the novel persists. It is, after all, something a person must invest in.

With short stories, the change in context seems more pertinent. Stories that were once read in magazines now rarely are. Their natural home is the collection, where their status as independent literary form is insisted upon, such that it seems to give them a glow that they might not have had before, in their original state. To put it another way, short stories were once tossed off, for cash. Now they no longer are, we consider them differently, but we also consider differently the ones that were tossed off, for cash, back in the day.

Take a pair of Maupassant stories from my Penguin Classics ‘Collected’: ‘The Hand’, and ‘A Duel’ – one eight pages long, one six. ‘The Hand’ is a straightforward spine-tingler that nowadays does no such thing; it is a ‘case’ story recounted after dinner about a man seemingly strangled by the disembodied hand of a man he had killed. ‘A Duel’ is more naturalistic, a short scene about a mild-mannered Frenchman trapped in a train carriage with a Prussian officer. The Prussian ends up challenging the Frenchman to a duel, right there on the next train platform, and the Frenchman, despite never having held a gun before in his life, shoots the Prussian dead.

Whereas both stories might have worked equally well when read in a late C19th literary magazine, ‘The Hand’, read as it is today, in a collection, stands or falls on its twist (and it falls – oh boy, does it fall), whereas ‘A Duel’ seems more sophisticated, more happy to be read in this new critical light. It seems to call the reader’s bluff. It’s called ‘A Duel’, you think so it’s going to be about a duel; either someone’s going to die, or no one is. The abrupt simplicity of the ending seems like an ironical play on the conventions of the form. The end is a kind of release. It offers a happy ending, when the whole notion of the short story seems to militate against it.

Again, I’ve got no idea how The Horla would once have been read, in whatever French literary magazine it first appeared, but reading it as a standalone book – lifting it out of contact of pieces like ‘Boule de Suif’, ‘Mouche’ and ‘A Duel’, not to mention ‘The Hand’; putting it, in stylistic terms, into italics rather than single quotes – is undoubtedly A Good Thing. I wouldn’t necessarily say the same thing for Joyce’s The Dead, for instance. Reading that story independently of the rest of Dubliners does not make it more of a masterpiece.

The Horla is direct, and immediate, and affecting, and some credit for this should be laid at the feet of Charlotte Mandell, whose new translation for Melville House removes any sense of dustiness, of decades intervening between you and the story. (That’s what I mean by saying this is a story written from the future – and I’ve written elsewhere about the irony that foreign classics are served by periodical fresh translations, whereas the classics of our tongue stay as old-fashioned as ever they were.)

For much of its extent, The Horla is simply a great, immersive and experiential horror story. It’s written in the form of a journal, and so we move step by step alongside the narrator from that opening state of grace (“What a wonderful day!”) to the dire and dismal end (“No… no… of course he is not dead… So then- it’s me I have to kill!”).

The intimations that something is wrong come early:

A nightmare grips me. I am fully aware that I am lying down and sleeping… I feel it and I know it… and I also feel that someone is approaching me, looking at me, feeling me, is climbing into my bed, kneeling on my chest, taking my neck in his hands and squeezing, squeezing… with all his strength, to strangle me.

And it would be simple to imagine this story sticking to these lines. Up the psychosis; keep things abstract; hug the horror so close to your chest that you don’t actually have to look too hard at it. We are in the mind of a madman, so we can keep things loose, let the reader imagine the horror.

No.

What makes The Horla so special is that it doesn’t settle for the abstract, for the easily assimilable. (This is what I mean by the story reading like a scientific report.) The scares come not from fantasy, but from that narrator’s attempts to capture and tame the irrational, to explain it, and his failure to do so.

Maupassant’s narrator is convinced that this creature exists, so he does what any rational person would do: he investigates. It drinks the water and the milk from his bedside table at night, so he puts out other food and drink, which it doesn’t touch. He ties up a carafe in muslin and smears graphite on his own lips, but in the morning the muslin is still tied, the bed sheets unsmeared with graphite, and the water gone.

This is the world of The Blair Witch Project, and World War Z (the book). It’s scary because it’s real. Again, Mandell’s translation is to thank. There is no mounting hysteria. Indeed, when things go quiet, the narrator convinces himself that everything’s fine.

But then we get this (and again, if you haven’t read the story, you’ve only got yourself to blame): the narrator reads in a scientific journal about an “epidemic of madness” raging in Brazil.

The inhabitants, distraught, are leaving their houses, deserting their villages, abandoning their crops, claiming they are pursued, possessed, ruled like human livestock by invisible but tangible beings, sorts of vampires, which feed on their life while they sleep, and which drink water and milk without seeming to touch any other food.

Not only is this clearly the same creature as is tormenting our man, but he remembers (and we can flick back and check) that he saw a Brazilian ship sailing up the Seine only a couple of months ago, in the very first entry, on that ‘wonderful’ day. Now his mind really goes into overdrive, now he gets hysterical, but now you will believe him, because – shit, yes, it’s obvious… the vampires have come from Brazil. That’s where it started, and now it’s here in Europe, he’s not mad, he just happens to be the first person to fall victim to something that soon is going to spread, and spread, and spread.

There are horrors to come, which I won’t spoil, if you’re dumb enough to have read all this without having gone and read The Horla when I told you to, but that’s the true horror, and the real reason why this story deserves a standalone publication: because you can’t read another story after it; indeed, there can’t be another story there when you turn the page, because there are no more stories. Once the Horlas take over, you think we will sit around reading novels, or short stories, or novellas, for that matter? This is one of those books, like David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, that dissolve the category of literature. They bring down the whole building on top of themselves. After The Horla, no more books. Fuck.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.

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